On a Saturday late last month, a group of Constitution activists staged a protest outside the Leon Valley City Hall. The single story modern building also serves as the police station for the city of about 11,000 residents.
James Springer was broadcasting live on YouTube that day. He said he came to the protest because “abuses of power by the Leon Valley Police Department — their dislike of the First Amendment.”
About a dozen protestors joined Springer. It was mostly uneventful, until police officials called an impromptu news conference, he said.
Springer told his online viewers, “Hey guys, stay tuned, alright? The chief has agreed. … He came out and said he’s going to do a press conference.”
The activists gathered at the steps of the city hall. Chief Joe Salvaggio came out and said, “First and foremost, Bao come over here, you’re under arrest. Get over here. ... You, let’s go. You are under arrest as well.”
Four of the activists were criminally charged. At least five others were handcuffed and detained for several hours as witnesses.
Salvaggio told the group, “Everybody else, you are not free to leave. … You are witnesses, every one of y’all are witnesses. Every one of your cameras, your devices, every one of them are going to be taken.”
The Leon Valley Police Department seized cell phones, cameras and other electronic devices.
Springer broadcasted his own arrest.
"I’m under arrest? Why? Retaliation. Are you kidding? Go grab the phones. Grab his phones. Get all the phones," he said.
The arrests at the "press conference" were the culmination of two months of skirmishing between the activists and the city's government, which started on May 2.
That’s when Jesus Padilla, known online as “Mexican Padilla,” performed what he called a “First Amendment audit” at the Leon Valley City Hall.
During these audits, activists test how law enforcement officers react to being filmed, he said. These sometimes-provocative encounters are then posted online. As Padilla recorded, he ran into Chief Salvaggio.
“What are you doing back here, sir?” What are you doing back here? Put the camera down.”
"No me touches. No me touches, pendejo,” said Padilla.
“Oh no, I’m talking to you,” said Salvaggio.
Padilla wasn’t willing to leave, and Salvaggio’s patience soon ran out.
Padilla was charged with criminal trespassing, resisting arrest and harassment of a public servant.
Days later, more activists with video cameras came to Leon Valley. There were more confrontations, arrests, videos online and emails.
One activist wrote: “This is just somebody saying – Mr. Perez is a former Army Ranger and a hard core anarchist who will stress test your members."
Leon Valley City Manager Kelly Kuenstler reads some of the milder threats they’ve received.
“You can not hide forever from your responsibilities. Your Chief is an incompetent tyrant. This is not NAZI Germany. Do your job. Leon Valley, Texas, violates the civil rights of two activists.”
In the last two months, she says Leon Valley city officials and staff have been bombarded with similar online threats and harassing voice mails.
“I want the threats to stop. I want the midnight phone calls to stop. I want the nasty emails to stop. I want the death threats to stop. I want the threats to spouses and children to stop,” Kuenstler said.
She said other small Texas municipalities are dealing with the same problem. Earlier this year, Olmos Park faced many of the same activists in a fight over the city’s ordinance banning open carry. Olmos Park eventually dropped the ordinance.
Leon Valley activists, however, aren't ready to surrender, saying their civil rights were violated, and they’re planning a lawsuit.
But Kuenstler said: “We have insurance for that, for civil rights violations.”
These activists see themselves as defenders of freedom. They are technologically savvy and masters of internet trolling. Small municipalities, like Leon Valley, could be finding that their strong-arm tactics are outmatched.
The “First Amendment auditors” are planning new protests.